Feminist/Queer Theory

Trying to Understand Utopia

Logan Hart

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas readers are introduced to a utopian city called Omelas. The narrator regales the audience with definitions of its beauty and splendor, but recognizing the listeners’ inability to believe in this perfect happiness without suffering, talks of a young child who suffers so that everyone else may live in peace. The utopia of Omelas, while constructed to defy the norms and expectations of a patriarchal society, is still built upon patriarchal ideas and understandings. Le Guin shows that even in a utopia, patriarchal conditioning still shapes our understanding of an ideal society.

The deliberate choice to have the narrator act as a character emphasizes this claim. The use of a characterized narrator doesn’t serve a purpose if Omelas is merely a perfect city. A utopia that Le Guin unassumingly wanted to tell the reader about, causing them to speculate what a peaceful society must look like. Yet, the narrator speaks as if they are trying to convince the readers of Omelas’s existence and splendor. After going into copious amounts of detail explaining what makes Omelas so spectacular, the narrator checks in with the audience “Do you believe? Do you accept the festival, the city, the Joy? No? Then let me describe one more thing” (Le Guin 3). The listeners’, and by extension, reader’s understanding of society is so fundamentally built upon their own understanding of the world, one more violent and masculine than this one, that we cannot accept it.

Utopia, by nature of being a society far removed and far above our own, must inherently be at odds with our own understanding of cultural norms. Rebecca Adams touches upon this in her article Narrative Voice and Unimaginability of the Utopian ‘Feminine’ in Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness and ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ where she says “any truly utopian vision will of necessity be “feminist,” insofar as it must be non-sacrificial and non-violent” (Adams 3). Simply by being a supposed utopia, Omelas casts aside typical patriarchal culture; there is no organized religion, no great leaders, sexuality is more open and less controlled. Omelas is a more feminine society simply by being so far removed from real world society. Le Guin even provides readers specific examples of typical gendered norms being ignored such as the women racing horses and the “tall young men (who) wear her flowers in their shining hair” (Le Guin 3).

The listeners are unable to accept this, and so the narrator describes the child beneath the city. A young child, which Le Guin deliberately leaves ungendered, is locked in a small room in a basement. The narrator described the horrible torment and suffering of the child, and the complicit nature of the city’s inhabitants. They are all aware of the child’s suffering, but, the narrator says, “they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery” (Le Guin 4). What Adams describes as “The archetype of the scapegoat, mythically representing–and critiquing–the process of the violent foundation of culture which Rene Girard terms the “victimage mechanism” (Adams 2).

It is implied that now the reader can understand how this society operates. Now Omelas is no longer perceived as perfect; in contrast, the cruelty the reader has seen in their own society, a more patriarchal foundation, the joyous nature of Omelas is made more digestible. Le Guin expertly weaves this more feminine, free culture that has no government, no organized religion, and which enjoys all that life has to offer, and then offsets it by showing how this culture was established. There are even more subtle instances of this woven into the narrative as well. Lee Cullen Khanna points out in her article Beyond Omelas: Utopia and Gender how intentional Le Guin is when giving the characters in Omelas a specific gender. The most striking instance of this is the line drawn between the young artist and the suffering child. Khanna writes “Tile prototype of the artist is, notably, a “he,” while the victimized child is, perhaps significantly, not gender specific” (Khanna 4). While both men and women make merry at the child’s expense, it is notable that the child’s mirror is a man.

The narrator has now shown that both the reader, and to an extent Le Guin, struggle to believe in a perfect society, one free from the reign and tyranny of old and cruel patriarchal structures. The use of a scapegoat to “benefit the majority” is nothing new in the society that we and Le Guin lived in. Women, people of color, children, the poor, any marginalized group are victimized and used as scapegoats in this world. Given lower paying jobs, expected to bend to the will of those around them, forced to meet societal expectations lest they become outcast. The success of the upper class, which for centuries has been composed of men, typically white, has been built upon the backs and bent heads of everyone else. It is revealing that the narrator believes the only way for the reader to understand Omelas is by telling us of the suffering child.

The conclusion of this story emphasizes the patriarchal nature of Omelas even further. The narrator, after speaking of the child, details the reactions of the citizens. As expected, none of the citizens, or at least those the narrator speaks of, are comfortable with the child’s suffering, but what are they to do? For one reason or another, the citizens firmly believe, even know, that should the child receive any happiness whatsoever, the narrator informs the listeners that, “there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child” (Le Guin 4). This in and of itself is reminiscent of patriarchal society. Instilling the notion that the suffering of others is standard, to be expected, so that the upper classes may be happy. Sexist ideologies are taught young and reinforced throughout adulthood to maintain the status quo in societies all around the world.

The narrator continues, describing how many citizens rationalize the treatment of the child, explaining away their suffering with false beliefs, even notions that it’s better for the child to stay suffering, as it wouldn’t know what to do with freedom. However, there are others, boys, girls, even adults, who cannot explain away the child’s misery. “These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman” (Le Guin 5). The narrator says that where these people go is even more incomprehensible than Omelas.

This final scene epitomizes the message and the reader’s understanding of the city. Now we know that the joy and happiness comes at a cost, a steep one, and naturally some can’t live with that burden. The city of Omelas accepts that people will leave if they are too consumed by the guilt of those who suffer, but the narrator doesn’t mention anywhere any attempts at saving the child. The notion that rescuing the child results in the loss of Omelas’s joy is so ingrained in the people, so established as fact, that none do so. In the past, when society was far more dominated by masculine leadership than it is today, we saw this same kind of indoctrination. It was expected of women and minorities to behave certain ways, accept certain things as truth. Their place as lessers, as accessories, as slaves. The patriarchy was obsessed with ensuring the idea of breaking free from those norms didn’t even cross the mind, and that any act of rebellion did not affect society on a grand scale.

This piece succinctly demonstrates that people such as the audience and the narrator cannot conceive of a society that is not plagued by patriarchal ideals. That to even begin to understand a culture of joy and happiness, we expect a dark mirror of that joy. Le Guin speaks even further to the corrupting nature of our society, that even when we understand and recognize the misery, we are more likely to turn from it than to do anything about it. In some ways, readers can view this piece as a warning. Le Guin wants the readers to be aware of their happiness and joy, know that it rests upon the suffering of others because of how our society has been built, and perhaps encourages us not to be like “the ones who walk away from Omelas” (Le Guin 5).

Works Cited

Adams, Rebecca. “Narrative Voice and Unimaginability of the Utopian “Feminine” in Le Guin’s the Left Hand of Darkness and “the Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”” Utopian Studies, vol. 2, no. 1/2, 1991, p. p35, web-p-ebscohost-com.cwi.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=5&sid=3274daeb-0bdf-4fd2-bbb7-446f8db4ff7e%40redis&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=4113050&db=a9h. Accessed 30 Apr. 2023.

Khanna, Lee Cullen. “Beyond Omelas: Utopia and Gender.” Utopian Studies, vol. 2, no. 1/2, 1991, p. p48, web-p-ebscohost-com.cwi.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=0&sid=0a48781c-d92a-41f6-a1dd-7b46d7267c83%40redis&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZSZzY29wZT1zaXRl#AN=4113051&db=a9h. Accessed 30 Apr. 2023.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters. Harper & Row, 1975, shsdavisapes.pbworks.com/f/Omelas.pdf. Accessed 30 Apr. 2023.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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